Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Houston 24, Tulane 31

In what has become a pattern under the Tony Levine regime, the Cougars were upset in front of a large (by UH standards, at least) home crowd by an inferior opponent. This time, it was the Tulane Green Wave (2-6 going into Saturday's game) that came to TDECU Stadium and ruined Houston's homecoming. The Cougars, to their credit, did have a chance to send the game into overtime after a late score and recovered onside kick. But Greg Ward threw an interception - his third of the day - as time expired to seal the embarrassing loss.

The Good: The Cougar defense did manage to extend its streak of creating a turnover to 32 straight games. Safety Adrian McDonald recovered a Tulane fumble in the endzone for a Cougar touchdown late in the first half. On the Green Wave's very next possession, he picked off Tulane QB Tanner Lee to set up a Houston field goal. The Cougars went into the locker room at halftime up 17-14, but that was the only time they led the game.

The Bad: Where shall I begin? The Cougar defense, which had been the team's bright spot, gave up 361 yards and 22 first downs to the Green Wave, who converted 10 out of 16 third downs. Lee gashed the Cougar secondary for 237 yards and three touchdown passes. The Cougar running game that looked so good against South Florida last week looked horrible against Tulane; RBs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson managed only 40 yards between them. Greg Ward rushed for 59 yards, but most of those were on scrambles after his protection broke down. He completed 31 of 49 passes but looked indecisive at times; in addition to his three interceptions, he was also sacked three times.

The Ugly: Again, where shall I begin? Deontay Greenberry fumbled on the Cougars' very first play from scrimmage, which more or less set the tone of the game. Kyle Bullard missed two field goals. While the Coogs "only" committed six penalties for 51 yards, they were penalties of the type that sustained Tulane drives and killed Houston ones. And the team simply did not look focused or prepared for this game. This was truly a team loss.

What it Means: The Coogs still only need one win to become bowl-eligible, but this loss - their first to Tulane since Dana Dimel was head coach - probably prevents them from winning a share of the conference title. Moreover, it's just another black eye that is going to cost the program credibility and fan support it simply can't afford to lose.

As for me, I've seen enough: Tony Levine isn't going to get the job done here, and needs to be relieved of his duties as head coach. 

But it comes with a free printer!

I recently found this advertisement in the business section of the July 8, 1993 Houston Post that had been used by my parents to wrap and store something:
That's right, folks: back in the summer of 1993, you could go to Bizmart (soon to become OfficeMax!) and get a state-of-the-art Compaq 486 with a VGA monitor and a 240 MB hard drive for the equivalent of $4,080 2014 dollars.

For purposes of comparison, the 128 GB iPhone 6 with an A8 Processor is 21 times faster, has over 530 times as much storage, and costs about one-tenth as much.

But it doesn't come with a free Epson dot matrix printer.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Houston 27, South Florida 3

The Cougars went to Tampa last Saturday and came away with their third win in a row over struggling South Florida Bull squad.

The Good: The Cougar ground game was the story of the day, gaining 217 yards and three touchdowns on 47 rushing attempts. Kenneth Farrow had 112 yards and one TD on 22 carries; he also caught a Greg Ward pass for another touchdown. Ryan Jackson contributed 62 yards and 2 more scores on 14 carries. The UH defense, meanwhile, kept South Florida out of the endzone.

The Bad: The Houston offense started out slow; their single touchdown in the first half was assisted by a huge USF penalty on fourth down. Kyle Bullard missed an extra point. Otherwise, there wasn't much to complain about this time around. The Cougars even managed to get flagged for only one penalty the entire game.

What it means: The Cougars are now in a five-way tie for the American Athletic Conference lead with East Carolina, UCF, Cincinnati and Memphis. Next up is Tulane at TDECU Stadium.

Two quick election observations

1. Not to belabor the same thought that is being made all over the rest of the internet today, but I think we can forget about Texas being a "purple" or "battleground" state anytime soon.

Yes, this was an election that the Republicans were going to dominate, both nationwide and at the state level. But when the Democratic candidates for statewide office can't even break forty percent against sleazeballs like Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick - or moreover, when statewide Democratic candidates actually lose vote share compared to four years ago - then all the bluster about demographic trends or better voter identification and turnout methods or Battleground Texas or whatever just looks silly.

I'm sure we'll continue to hear about "Texas turning blue" in 2016, and 2018, and 2020. I'm equally sure that state Democrats are not going to have any luck getting their candidates elected to any statewide office in any of those years. If ever. 

2. The state might well be solidly conservative, but my former home of Denton is clearly becoming more liberal. First, there's this:
Denton became the first Texas city to ban hydraulic fracturing Tuesday after a citizen-driven proposition cruised to a landslide victory at the polls.

Final returns showed the fracking ban passing by a whopping 59-41 percent margin all night long. While dozens of cities in New York and elsewhere have banned fracking, Texas is oil and gas country. So Denton’s proposition over the rights of a Texas city to police what happens within its borders pushed it into the national spotlight.

Ed Soph, treasurer of Pass the Ban, said the turnout sent a message.

“The responsible citizens of Denton have spoken — loudly and clearly,” Soph said.
When I worked for the City of Denton, and the Barnett Shale play exploded, everybody was rushing to get special gas well plats approved so that they could drill in and around the city. It was simply the "Texas" thing to do and was largely without controversy. I do remember Mr. Soph being one of the few people who spoke against drilling, and I also remember that he was regarded by local business leaders and elected officials as a tree-hugging jazz professor from UNT whose opinion didn't matter. Looks like times have changed.

The fracking ban will be challenged in court, but yesterday's election result is nevertheless noteworthy, especially considering how opponents of the ban outspent proponents by a massive margin but still lost by a margin of almost 20 percentage points.

Then there's this:
Liquor sales are now legal in Denton, after thousands of voters chose to make all alcoholic beverages legal to sell.
The vote means that Denton bars and restaurants no longer have to get special permits as private clubs to sell hard alcohol, and that businesses can start selling bottles of hard liquor starting Jan. 1.
I've written about the "wet-dry line" in the City of Denton before: basically, beer and wine sales at grocery stores and restaurants were limited to the city's 1977 boundaries, and any land annexed into the city after 1977 was dry. I spent many a meeting trying to explain to prospective convenience store owners why they could not sell beer in wine at their prospective location, even though the convenience store on the other side of the street was already selling alcohol. It was confusing, to say the least, but I was told that it would never change: the the city's churches would fight any attempt to move the wet-dry line, and the city's conservative voters would fall in line behind them. The same went for liquor stores ever being allowed inside Denton city limits.

Well, the wet-dry line was finally erased by a local election in 2006, which was amazing enough. Yesterday's vote, which allows liquor stores inside the city as well as does away with the city's silly "private club" permits for mixed drinks at restaurants and bars, is nothing short of miraculous.

Again, it appears that times have changed.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Devil in the house

This commercial is apparently a few years old, but I had never seen it before it made the rounds on Facebook this week, so...

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

North Texas 21, Rice 41

With the Cougars taking the week off, and the Mean Green making a trip into town, I decided to go to Rice Stadium to watch them take on the Owls. However, Rice scored a touchdown on the very first play from scrimmage - an 88-yard pass from Driphus Jackson to Jordan Taylor - and that set the tone of the game.

The Good: The Mean Green managed to keep the game close - at least for a half - by managing some big plays of their own. Darvin Kidsy ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown, and North Texas also scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass. The Mean Green actually led this game at halftime, 21-14.

The Bad: The Mean Green fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, which led to a Rice field goal, and it was all downhill from there. On the very next possession, the Owls picked off UNT quarterback Andrew McNulty for a sixty-yard interception return. The Owls scored 27 unanswered points in the second half, while the Mean Green offense sputtered. North Texas would manage only 23 rushing yards for the entire game.

What it Means: I was hoping that the Mean Green would be able to build on last season's bowl win and have a successful 2014. But they are now 2-6, meaning that they need to win out - not likely - in order to avoid their ninth losing season out of the last ten. The Owls, on the other hand, have won four games in a row.

Monarchs again

I've previously written (see here and here) about the loss of monarch butterfly habitat and the resultant effect on the insect's population, before, but as the monarchs make their way back to Mexico for winter hibernation, it's worth nothing that concerns about the species' well-being remain:
For years, the worry about monarch butterflies has focused on the loss of habitat in their winter home in Mexico.

But as the butterflies make their way south through Texas this month, there's even more concern about where they spend their summers.

The loss of habitat in the Upper Midwest's Corn Belt has many worried about the monarch's ability to keep making the 2,000-mile trek to Mexico each year. Every year, the monarchs overwinter in Mexico, then fly to the southern United States, where they mate and produce a new generation of butterflies before dying off.

Even with favorable weather conditions this year, the monarch population, which ebbs and flows, isn't looking good, said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.

"It's an uptick, but it's not a massive uptick," Taylor told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "What I've been predicting is a doubling of the population, but that's still a small population and one of the smallest on record."

Last year, an all-time low of 0.67 hectares, or about 33 million monarchs, were documented in the mountains west of Mexico City. The average population of monarchs in the last 20 years is about 6.39 hectares.

In the northern U.S. and southern Canada, the habitat loss is taking its toll.

"What we really have to deal with is the habitat issue," Taylor said. "We're losing over a million acres a year. If that trend doesn't stop, the population will continue to decline."

Overall, Taylor estimates, about 165 million acres of summer breeding grounds — nearly the size of Texas — have been lost.

"Given that loss of habitat, it's not at all surprising that the population has gone down," Taylor said. "If we want the numbers to come back up, we have to address the habitat loss issue."
Individuals can do their part by planting milkweed - the only plant that monarch larvae eat - in their gardens, but saving the monarch is also going to require assistance from agricultural interests (whose use of pesticides and herbicides is taking a toll on both the insect as well as its host plant) as well as state departments of transportation, who maintain landscaping along highways including the I-35 corridor that monarchs generally follow:
All of the monarch population east of the Rockies funnels through Texas on its way to Mexico.

Taylor said there needs to be a corridor along I-35 to keep the monarchs migrating from the Upper Midwest and southern Canada.

"Monarchs are basically on that I-35 corridor in both the spring and fall," Taylor said. "How do we treat roadsides to make them a more friendly place?"
Milkweed is a key feature of my little gardens, and over the past month or so the plants have been doing their intended job as monarch breeding grounds. Whenever possible, I collect the fifth instar caterpillars and put them in a tupperware container so that they can safely pupate away from the elements, predators, lawnmowers, etc. Once they emerge and their wings have dried, I release them. So far I've released four monarchs, including this beautiful lady:

I'm uncertain if any of these butterflies will make their way down to Mexico or if they will overwinter here, and in any case they're not going to make much of a difference in the species' overall population numbers. Still, I find raising these creatures to be enjoyable, and I like to think I'm doing my part, however small, to keep the monarch viable.

I'll plant more milkweed early next spring, in time for the migration back north. I urge anybody reading this to do the same.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Houston 31, Temple 10

The Cougars managed back-to-back victories for the first time this season, getting past the Temple Owls in an oftentimes-sloppy game last Friday night at TDECU Stadium.

The Good: The "Third Ward Defense" continues to be a turnover-creating machine. They savaged Owl quarterback P.J. Walker for three interceptions, one of which was run back for a touchdown by Trevon Stewart, and denied the Owls another touchdown by forcing a goal-line fumble. On the other side of the ball, Greg Ward, Jr. seems to be settling into his new job as quarterback. Ward was remarkably efficient, completing 29 of 33 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He, along with running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, also managed a healthy 171 yards and one TD on the ground.

The Bad: The Houston defense gave up a couple of big plays to Temple wide receiver Jahad Thomas, who had gains of 74 and 72 yards on a pair of well-executed screen plays. Neither play resulted in a touchdown - the Houston defense held Temple to a field goal the first time and forced the aforementioned goal-line fumble the second time - but I can't help but wonder if the absences of cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews, both of whom sustained season-ending injuries last week, played a part in those big plays. Kicker Kyle Bullard continued to struggle, as one of his field goal attempts hit the uprights. And that offensive line... Ugh!

The Ugly: The game was marred by penalties: Temple was flagged 11 times for 93 yards and the Cougars were penalized 10 times for 102 yards. Several Houston penalties resulted in stalled offensive drives, including two holding penalties that negated what would have been excellent Kenneth Farrow runs. Honestly, the Cougars should have scored more than 31 points in this game, and probably could have if they had not kept shooting themselves in the foot with penalties on offense.

What it Means: Houston is now above .500 for the first time this season and is 2-1 in conference. They are technically still in the hunt for the AAC title, but they'll need some help to get there.

The Cougars get a week off before traveling to Tampa to take on the South Florida Bulls.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Houston 28, Memphis 24

After falling behind by two touchdowns early in the game, the Cougars rallied back in the second half to manage a rarity under the Tony Levine regime: a road win over a favored team.

The Good: Houston's defense forced five turnovers, including two critical ones late in the game which kept Memphis from potentially taking the lead. Greg Ward, making his first start at quarterback, passed for 188 yards and a touchdown and rush for 95 yards and a touchdown, including a 64-yard scramble in the second quarter to get the Coogs on the board.

The Bad: As Matt Jackson notes, much of Houston's offensive gains were the result of Greg Ward's ability to improvise when plays break down. He is getting no protection from the Coogs' paper-thin offensive line. Special teams are abysmal; they fumbled a kickoff that led to an easy Memphis score, and Kyle Bullard missed his only field goal attempt of the night.

The Ugly: Two of Houston's better defensive players: cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews, were injured during the game and will miss the remainder of the season. That's a huge hit to a defense that has been the team's lone strength this season.

What it Means: This was a big win for the Coogs, who reach the halfway point of the 2014 season with a 3-3 record.

Next up for the Coogs are the Temple Owls, who come to town for a Friday night ESPN game at TDECU Stadium.

Erasure at Bayou Music Center

I rarely go to concerts, but given that Erasure is one of my favorite bands - yes, I admit it - and given that I hadn't seen them in concert since the mid-'90s, my attendance at their concert at the Bayou Music Center last Saturday evening was pretty much mandatory. (I actually attended two concerts last weekend: the ex-wife [!] dragged me to the Toyota Center to see Katy Perry [!!] on Friday night.)

The veteran British synthpop duo was playing two nights in Houston as a part of a tour supporting their latest album, The Violet Flame, and they did play a handful of songs from that album. Their set, however, was dominated by hits from their mid-'80s-to-early-'90s heyday. Which is perfectly fine: that's what the crowd, which skewed fortysomething, came to came to dance and sing along to, and they did not leave disappointed.

In contrast to the elaborate productions that past Erasure tours were known for, this show was rather stripped-down: no sets, no props, no fancy costumes or dancers; just Vince Clarke at his laptop and keyboard (he played an acoustic guitar for a few songs), Andy Bell at the microphone, and a couple of backup singers. And again, that was perfectly fine.

As somebody who occasionally gets grief for liking Erasure - people tell me that synthpop "sucks," that Vince Clarke's compositions are formulaic bubblegum, that Erasure is a "gay" band (whatever that means) - I found it extremely enjoyable to be able to sit in a venue with thousands of like-minded fans singing along to "Star" or "A Little Respect." Maybe it's nostalgia, but they have created some truly classic songs.

Alas, before I knew it, the concert was over. And that's my one gripe: their set was barely 90 minutes long. I wish they could have gone another thirty minutes or so. It's not like they were running out of great songs to include in the setlist; they only played one song apiece from Wonderland and I Say I Say I Say, and nothing at all from Cowboy (one of their better albums IMHO) or the Crackers International EP.

The length of the show aside, I had a great time. These guys always put on a good performance; age has not diminished Andy's vocal chops or his ability to work the crowd in the least. Hopefully Vince and Andy will make their way back to Houston soon, with a slightly longer setlist.

Chris Gray's Houston Press review of the concert is here.